Monday Musings… Why Blue Monday Just Got Bluer
Raise your hand if you know someone who has a diagnosis of depression? 80% of the class raised their hands.
Now raise your hand if you know someone who has a diagnosis of anxiety? Again, most of the class put their hands in the air.
Of those people you are thinking of, how many have a diagnosis of both anxiety and depression? About 60% of the students raised their hands once more.
For years, we have been hearing about the 1 in 5 statistic – that 20% of Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in the current year. It sure seems like it’s higher than that. Truth be told, we ALL will have a mental health problem in this year that we hope we can overcome; but some of us will develop symptoms that last long enough and are debilitating enough to warrant a diagnosis. According to the statistics, I should’ve only had 8 or 9 hands shoot up, not 30+.
“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem!” We’ve had a problem with our mental health for a very long time, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
This reality gave birth to Blue Monday, a day marked on the calendar as the most depressing day of the year. Apparently, the date was established in 2005 by a mathematical formula created by Cliff Arnall. His formula considers the weather, personal debt load, days since Christmas, failed New Year’s resolutions, lack of motivation, and poor preparation to take action. I can’t argue with him that those factors do impact mental health. And they may even be factors that affect the individuals my students were thinking of.
But it’s only part of the equation, since it appears that in our culture many people struggle with chronic mental issues, not just on a specific day or through the month of January.
I often get asked “why” the number of people suffering seems so high. Why are so many people struggling with their mental health? It’s those entitled kids, they just don’t know how to cope, right? Is it that we’ve removed some of the stigma, so more people think it’s ok to ask for help? It must be global warming and its effect on the environment, right?
Everybody wants an answer. Everybody wants a national day like Blue Monday. Most are willing to put the blame on something convenient, something external, something we can base all of the world’s problems on.
But maybe, one of the reasons the numbers are climbing is simply that people’s perceptions of hopelessness and helplessness have overridden their will to survive.
Let’s think about the words of Jack Swigert, the command module pilot of the Apollo 13 spaceflight as he communicated to Mission Control that their service module was critically wounded.
All had been going well until Mission Control asked Apollo 13 to run the safety checks. They were asked to stir the cryogenic tanks containing hydrogen and oxygen on the service module. The purpose of the procedure would provide an accurate reading of how much gas was left. This simple, routine, innocuous check caused an incredible explosion, depleting their supply of oxygen. At that point, they knew they were looking Disaster and Death in the face.
No amount of deep breathing and self-care techniques were going to help here. The avoidance strategies of coping with issues that we have taught this generation (exercise, listen to music, take some ‘me time’, or use distraction to clear your mind) aren’t going to work. It’s not that people don’t having coping strategies, they do! It’s just that in moments of crisis, they become useless.
Now the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 went through extensive training to secure their position on this spaceflight. Interestingly enough, Jack Swigert was a substitute who joined the crew due to one of the original members being exposed to German measles. And now he and the others were faced with the most important decision of their lives. How do we get out of this situation alive? They saw the problem; now how would they solve it? They may have initially perceived their situation as hopeless or even felt helpless momentarily, but nothing could deter them from changing their mental gears to restore order to this chaos.
James Lovell was often asked, after his successful return, if the crew had any suicide pills on board. His response: “We didn’t, and I’ve never heard of such a thing in the eleven years I spent as an astronaut and NASA executive. I did of course, occasionally think of the possibility that the spacecraft explosion might maroon us in an enormous orbit about the Earth – a sort of perpetual monument to the space program. But Jack Swigert, Fred Haise, and I never talked about that fate during our perilous flight. I guess we were too busy struggling for survival.” (https://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-13-1.html)
Your perspective can do you in, or it can catapult you to strengthen your inner resolve and push through with all you’ve got left.
The astronauts knew that the spacecraft was designed so that the command module and lunar module would remain intact until they were in the lunar orbit. Once the moon landing had happened and their research was conducted, the two modules would reconnect and they would return to Earth. Being only 56 hours into the mission, the modules had not yet separated. The astronauts had time and opportunity to transfer to the lunar module and use it as their lifeboat.
For 88 hours, they remained in the lunar module, cold, uncomfortable, and uncertain.
Increasing dehydration, starvation, sleep deprivation and carbon dioxide emissions were just a few of the many hazards that threatened their survival. The biggest threat though was re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.
There was only one hope. It relied on the principles of physics – the timing and angle trajectory had to be just right. A million to one shot (or greater). But on April 17,1970 they made it! It was a Friday, Happy Friday!
So why do so many days feel like Blue Monday, for what seems like a growing number of people?
Is it a lack of coping skills? Perhaps. It does appear that many don’t have the right tools and training to know how to survive. Having strong mental health is like training for an astronaut mission, but most people won’t put the work in, choosing the quick fixes to bolster happiness instead.
Is it easier now to come forth with your problems and not feel alone in your suffering? That could be true, but when I hear of people having more than one diagnosis, as my class showed me, their opening up and seeking help hasn’t resulted in great management of symptoms whether that’s with medication or therapy. We should see a healthier society, with well-equipped individuals managing the crises in their lives. But we know that’s not the case.
Then, we tend to blame everything and everyone around us. Is it the planet’s fault? Well, the Apollo 13 astronauts could have displaced the blame onto the craft, the faulty oxygen tank, or any other external force, but instead they didn’t think about who to blame. They banded together to think about any and every way possible to take command back of this crisis. They assumed ownership and responsibility for their survival, and using that will not to perish, their mental fortitude created the path of possibility of re-entry. They pushed through any thoughts of hopelessness or helplessness. Alive! We will stay alive! – that was their mindset.
Designating a day to acknowledge Global Depression may seem like a comfort in that it recognizes the pain and suffering those with mental illness endure, but what we need to acknowledge globally, is that we have had a problem! We need to focus not on ways to remove stress and make life easier, but to recognize that life IS hard, that there WILL BE challenges, and that training for this BATTLE will push us to our limits, just like it did for the astronauts of Apollo 13. When we train for the unexpected, when we plan for adversity, the enemy can attack, our oxygen tanks can deplete, but we will not be defeated. We will press forward combining our thoughts, our will, and our actions to survive.
While it used to be said that every young boy (or person) dreamed of becoming an astronaut, now I know why it's a career few actually succeed at. We've had a problem; we have a problem; and it looks like we'll continue to have a problem…